A disappointing production smudges some of the appeal of "Lobby Hero," a typically mournful new comedy from Kenneth Lonergan. The imperfect pitch of director Mark Brokaw's cast is particularly unfortunate because the playwright, who is riding high on the strength of an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for "You Can Count on Me," is not always at his sweetly subtle best here. The web of moral crises at the center of "Lobby Hero" feels strained.

A disappointing production smudges some of the appeal of “Lobby Hero,” a typically mournful new comedy from Kenneth Lonergan. The imperfect pitch of director Mark Brokaw’s cast is particularly unfortunate because the playwright, who is riding high on the strength of an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for “You Can Count on Me,” is not always at his sweetly subtle best here. As graceful as he can be in defining complicated characters through the fumbling give and take of everyday speech, Lonergan does not come as naturally by his plots, and the web of moral crises at the center of “Lobby Hero” feels strained.

There’s nothing off-the-mark about Allen Moyer’s set, which depicts with admirable exactness the utilitarian lobby of a Manhattan apartment building. Sparse furnishings and lighting fixtures clearly have been purchased in different decades by supers with divergent tastes. Fingerprints form a greasy star burst on the glass double doors. Everything looks a bit scuffed and secondhand, including the room’s single human fixture, who sits behind a forlorn-looking sign announcing, to no one at all, that all visitors must be announced.

This is Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald), technically not the night doorman but a security guard, and the kind of noble loser in which Lonergan specializes. As the play opens he’s being reprimanded by his “captain,” the company man William (Dion Graham), for failing to record a visit to the building by a pair of beat cops.

William also uses the occasion to give a lecture on Jeff’s general fecklessness. Nevertheless, Jeff has a real affection for William and is secretly touched by the interest taken in his shambling existence, even if he couldn’t get through the book William recommended, “The Six Habits of Self-Motivated People.” “I guess I wasn’t really that motivated,” he shrugs.

With his history of underachievement, half-finished sentences and offhanded, smirking responses, Jeff is a lovable Lonergan type we’ve come to associate with the actor Mark Ruffalo, the star of his breakthrough play “This Is Our Youth” as well as “You Can Count on Me.” (Ruffalo was supposed to play the role but opted for a movie offer instead.) Although Fitzgerald does a creditable job in the part, popping off Jeff’s snarky wisecracks effectively, he does not have Ruffalo’s exquisite sensitivity, an ability to imbue these ne’er-do-well characters with an aching soulfulness that’s infinitely touching.

At its finest, Lonergan’s writing requires that kind of sensitivity to really flourish onstage. His characters are awkward and prosaic on the surface, maybe a little pushy or defensive, tiresome in the rambling clutter of their speech, but possessed of sensitive hearts and spirits nonetheless. This dimension, suggested by but not spelled out in Lonergan’s minutely inflected dialogue, is missing from the performances in “Lobby Hero.” As a result, the play rambles along as a mundane, albeit quite funny, tale of affections and loyalties among a quartet of characters whose paths cross in Jeff’s lobby.

The other two characters are the cops Bill (an excellent Tate Donovan) and Dawn (Heather Burns, misguidedly affecting a voice that could peel paint off the wall). Bill is married but ready to start up a fling with the adoring Dawn — until Jeff, himself besotted with the lady in uniform, lets slip that Bill’s friend in 22J is not an old pal but a prostitute.

Meanwhile, William’s brother has been arrested in a murder case and used William as his alibi; the upstanding William is torn between loyalty to a wayward brother he still loves — and honestly can’t believe would be involved in a murder — and the demands of his upright moral code. Things get more complicated when Bill vouches to his superiors for William’s honesty, and yet more so when Jeff himself decides to take his own stand on the subject, his eagerness inspired as much by his respect and affection for William as it is by his desire to look good in Dawn’s eyes.

The tangle of relationships between these characters is delineated in scenes that have the funky, off-the-cuff charm that Lonergan could trademark. And there are many moments that resonate affectingly, such as Jeff’s resentment of Bill, who typifies the kind of man he both hates and envies: “The guy has no qualms about anything, he does whatever he wants and he gets everything he wants, and as far as I can see he feels just fine about it. So yeah, I wouldn’t mind being a little bit like that, would you?”

But if the relationships between the characters are sensitively developed, the circumstances that give rise to them often feel contrived. Would this cop really be so egregiously derelict as to visit regularly a prostitute while on duty, with his female partner cooling her heels downstairs? If so, would he leave his hat behind and not miss it for at least a day, as we are expected to believe? The web of plot developments that unfolds over the course of the second act requires Lonergan to distort his characters’ personalities to fit some increasingly erratic and even melodramatic behavior.

As a result, the lovely, sidelong charm of Lonergan’s writing at its best begins to evaporate. As he’s illustrated in his finest work, “This Is Our Youth” and his current picture, Lonergan is the rare writer working today who can depict moments of grace in ordinary lives with equal parts objectivity and tenderness. When he saddles himself with extraordinary circumstances, as he does in “Lobby Hero,” he sabotages his own strengths.

Lobby Hero

Playwrights Horizons; 141 seats; $45 top

Production

A Playwrights Horizons presentation of a play in two acts by Kenneth Lonergan. Directed by Mark Brokaw.

Creative

Set, Allen Moyer; costumes, Michael Krass; lighting, Mark McCullough; sound, Janet Kalas; production stage manager, James FitzSimmons. Artistic director, Tim Sanford. Opened March 13, 2001. Reviewed March 10, 2001. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Jeff - Glenn Fitzgerald William - Dion Graham Dawn - Heather Burns Bill - Tate Donovan

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